A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994


As we approach the 21st century, economic and demographic trends are making the needs of students at risk, and the country's dependence on these young people, increasingly salient. Students traditionally regarded as "at risk" -- poor children and children of color -- are growing in numbers. According to some projections, by the year 2020 about one-fourth of children will live in poverty, and children of color will comprise more than half of students in public schools (Natriello, McDill, and Pallas, 1990, pp. 36-38). Already, in many districts, children of color comprise the majority of public school students. It is from this young, ethnically diverse population that the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians must be drawn to replace retiring professionals in the next century (Kahn, 1992). And it is this young, ethnically diverse population that the aging Baby Boomers must depend upon to support the Social Security system (Hodgkinson, 1985, p. 3).

Economic and demographic trends give a new urgency to education reform efforts, yet the personal and social costs of school failure have been apparent for decades. Huge disparities between the well-educated "haves" and the poorly skilled "have nots" intensify social divisions and contribute to urban decay and violence. The escalating costs of our welfare and prison systems cannot be measured simply in dollars and cents -- all of us, including those caught within these systems, pay for unemployment and crime with a loss of security and well-being.

And there are less dramatic costs, costs that rarely make the evening news. Most poorly educated young people do not become lifelong welfare recipients or career criminals. Too many of them labor long hours at dead-end jobs for wages that fail to raise their families out of poverty; they enroll in store-front vocational "colleges" that immerse them in debt and fail to prepare them for promised career opportunities; they struggle to read the employment application or the letter from their child's teacher that demands more literacy skills than they possess; they die at earlier ages from illnesses and diseases related to poverty.

Unless we establish reforms that ensure excellence in education for all, increasing numbers of young people may be forced to pay the costs of inadequate schooling. The widely cited report A Nation at Risk warns that U.S. students as a whole are at risk of developing lower skill levels than their counterparts (and future trade competitors) in other countries (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). In an international assessment in 1991, the average math and science scores of U.S. 13-year-olds were lower than those of their foreign counterparts (National Center for Education Statistics, 1992, pp. 9-10). In science achievement, even advanced U.S. students tended to score lower than advanced students in the other countries assessed (National Center for Education Statistics, 1992, p. 52). Perhaps these disparities are due to differences in student motivation at test time, dissimilarities in the pools of students assessed, or to other extraneous factors that may have skewed the results. However, we cannot ignore the possibility that they reflect significant achievement gaps between U.S. students and students in other countries.

All of our young people are at risk, but some are much more at risk than others. The gaps in scores between U.S. and foreign students, although troubling, are much smaller than the gaps in scores between better and poorer test performers in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 1992, p. 40). Furthermore, the type and severity of conditions that place students at risk vary. While some students are at risk of developing mediocre skills, others are in danger of being caught up in street violence.

Which educational strategies work best with which children? Too often, glowing reports of new programs do not explain how specific program components address diverse student needs. To establish quality education for our young people, we need to look at all aspects of our schools -- curriculum, instruction, assessment, staff development, and organizational strategies -- as well as factors outside school that influence students' "readiness to learn." Our challenge is to institutionalize practices that stimulate all students to learn, while ensuring that the diverse needs of students at greatest risk are met in a non- stigmatizing manner.

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